3 steps for HR leaders to enhance virtual onboarding

Onboarding new hires is challenging in an office setting – but even more so when remote. HR leaders can leverage three strategies to better support new hires.

As many organizations start to return to the office, for a large segment of employees, work is likely to remain hybrid or remote. According to a May 2022 Gartner survey of 194 organizations, HR leaders and executives expect 57 percent of their workforce to be hybrid and 29 percent to be permanently remote – higher than leaders’ expectations in April (24 percent) and March (24 percent). In this new reality, virtual onboarding will remain the norm for hybrid and remote hires

Virtual onboarding, if not done correctly, can leave new hires feeling discouraged and disconnected. It can restrict new hires’ ability to leverage peer networks and learn from colleagues by observation. In fact, even before the pandemic, Gartner research shows only 44 percent of recruiting leaders said they believed their onboarding processes successfully integrated new hires into their organizations’ culture. 

HR leaders can implement three practices to adapt existing onboarding practices to the virtual environment: 

Clarify responsibilities to ensure efficiency
Onboarding is a team effort, but it’s more challenging when team members can’t see how their role fits with others. As HR professionals onboard new remote hires, they should revisit the responsibilities that hiring managers, IT, learning and development, recruiting and other professionals have in the onboarding process.

HR should start by mapping the onboarding experience from the new hire’s perspective. This map – including new hires’ emotional experiences – can help HR professionals focus on crucial touchpoints for engagement. With a focused set of objectives and touchpoints, HR can then clarify who is responsible, what they must do and when. Clear roles and responsibilities ensure onboarding objectives don’t fall through the cracks and that process owners know who can address challenges. 

Virtual onboarding portals are a great way to ensure visibility into onboarding progress. Gartner research shows the adoption and use of virtual onboarding portals, already of high value for 64 percent of organizations, can help boost new hire engagement in a virtual setting. 

Help hiring managers be Connector managers
Incorporating new hires into existing teams can be challenging, especially in the face of ongoing change fatigue, which many individuals are experiencing because of the pandemic and today’s high turnover environment.  

To drive employee performance, progressive HR functions focus on developing and supporting Connector managers — individuals who are able to connect employees, in this case new hires, to the right people and resources at the right time.  

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Connector managers have been found to boost sustainable performance of employees by 45 percent by providing support on daily tasks and long-term career growth. 

HR can help managers become Connectors by doing the following:

  • Developing virtual team-building exercises to help managers integrate new hires into their teams and reinforce the organization’s culture.
  • Equipping managers with resources on understanding their new hires’ communication styles and work preferences.
  • Sharing conversation guides for managers to use to help new hires take ownership of their onboarding experience and build relationships inside and outside their immediate teams.

Shape new hires’ perceptions of their experience
Improving the virtual onboarding experience often requires trial and error. The most successful organizations not only understand this but also manage new hires’ experience throughout the process. 

One way to do this is through surveys or focus groups to elicit feedback aimed at improving the onboarding experience for subsequent new hires. HR should also reach out to survey and focus group participants to share how their feedback has improved the onboarding process. This communication can shape new hires’ perceptions of their onboarding experience by reinforcing the successes of the program and reframing the potential negatives. By acknowledging the pain points, employees feel heard and valued.   

Overall, onboarding is the first impression new hires have of their organization. In today’s new talent landscape of competitive attraction and retention, it’s critical they get it right. To ensure a positive onboarding experience — whether virtual or in-person — HR leaders need to map out the onboarding experience to make sure it’s relevant to new hires’ roles. They should equip managers with the tools to build their new employees’ networks beyond obvious connections and gather feedback from new hires, acknowledging any mistakes made and incorporating lessons from those mistakes into future iterations of onboarding programs.